Plane landing. Photo: Flickr (cc) bfrazAlmost four years after the fact, it hits me one day in the bathroom.  “I live in Germany.  I really live here!  What the hell?!”

Sure, it may sound obvious to you, but the scurrility of living in another country, in another language, on another continent takes some time to really absorb.  And here I am, facing another renewal of my visa, registered at a German address, with a German bank account, German friends, German books, a German gmail account.  How did it all happen?

Once upon a time at a desk job in America, I was fed up.  Desk work, proofreading, the whole 9-5 “young professional” thing just weren’t sitting right.  After graduating from college, I had briefly considered teaching English in the Marshall Islands before deciding for the safe and the rational—a job at a local publishing company, loan payments, and a business casual dress code.  My loans sinking and the stress of desk-job-life rising, I started looking for a new job.  Not just another job in publishing.  Not just another job in the United States.  I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I wanted it to involve seeing the world and getting paid for it.

A lofty goal perhaps.  But if you’re flexible, just about anything is possible.  I applied to jobs with US Foreign Offices, and I didn’t get a single response.  One day I stumbled upon an “au pair placement” web site.  (Au pair=live-in nanny.)  Almost as a joke, I filled out the registration form, and the letters started to pour in.  “We live in a small town in Bavaria and have two children we would like you to come take care of…”  “We are a family of 5 living near Stuttgart…”  I was sent pictures of rosy-cheeked children and letters about a life that sounded like just the  mix of work and travel that I was looking for.  Several weeks later I had chosen a family in Frankfurt am Main, and I bought a one-way plane ticket.

Moving to Germany

“You’re moving to Germany?!” people exclaimed.  “How brave!”  Brave I was not.  Oblivious, perhaps.  I got my placement, quit my job, and packed my suitcase in a matter of months.  I have a long history of spontaneous and un-thought-out decisions that have shaped my life in unexpected and positive ways.  I wasn’t about to start second-guessing last minute plans to move across the ocean now.

I arrived at the Frankfurt airport after a red-eye flight feeling exciting, nervous, disoriented.  My new employer, let’s call her Janet, was waiting for me at baggage claim.  She whisked me off to the car, introduced me to the family’s driver, and showered me with praises for my attempts at German and stories about how excited the twins were to meet me.  I felt like I was walking through a dream.  A driver?  A cook?  WAIT THESE PEOPLE LIVE IN A MANSION?!  I had stumbled into some sort of modern-day German version on Mary Poppins.  Too bad I didn’t have a magical carpetbag, it might have made taking care of two rich spoiled brats a little easier.

I lasted ten months with my new  “family,” experienced classism on a level I was not even aware existed outside of 19th century English novels, was taken on family vacations to Cyprus and Dubai.  I was shown kindness, met hordes of interesting people, tried every German beer I could get my hands on, took weekend trips all over Europe, and lived in an enormous beautiful house in an enormous beautiful city:  insured, paid a small stipend, and well-fed.   If you are looking for a relatively simple way to spend a year in Europe, au pairing is one of the easiest, and most interesting.  There are more than a handful of horror stories, especially among those afraid of speaking out against unfair working conditions because of bad conditions at home, but there are also success stories, sweet children, and magical, glass-slipper moments when you step back, take in the scene, and ask yourself, can this really be my life?  Or is this all just a beautiful dream?

The most thorough way to get to know Germany is certainly not as an exchange student—a scene I have experienced as involving lots of English speakers having out with English speakers, going to parties and sampling German beer (which really deserves the reputation it enjoys worldwide).  No, no!  For the cultural warrior interested in getting to know the real Germany—what it’s like to grow up here, to go to school here, to be born and bred here, to eat here, get insured here, drive a car here, go to work here–is to go live with a family and help them raise their children.  Before you’ll ever be able to open the “German cultural window” you need to learn about important things like St. Martin’s Day (St. Martin was a man who shared half of his coat with a homeless person and on his day children make lanterns, learn about sharing, and parade around the streets), laugenbrötchen (pretzel dough rolls!  delicious!) and the words to “Alle meine Entchen.”

There are gaggles of au pair agencies looking for nannies on the web, but one I can recommend looking into from experience is:

*Au pairs legally work 20 hours a week, have one day of every seven free, and receive a stipend (385 euros each month as of 2005), housing, food, and health insurance.*

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